Eugene O'Neill
 

New York Times, October 3, 1933

In Which Eugene O'Neill Recaptures the Past in a Comedy with George M. Cohan

By BROOKS ATKINSON

As the writer of comedy Mr. O’Neill has a capacity for tenderness that most of us never suspected. “Ah, Wilderness!” with which the Guild opened its sixteenth season last evening, may not be his most tremendous play, but it is certainly his most attractive.  How much of it is autobiographical this column is not prepared to say just now, but obviously it is Mr. O’Neill’s attempt to recapture past life of which he is fond.  All the characters are beguiling; at least two of them are admirable and lovable.  And toward them Mr. O’Neill’s point of view is full of compassionate understanding.

As a Connecticut father of the year 1906, Mr. Cohan gives the ripest finest performance in  his career, suggesting, as in the case of Mr. O’Neill, that his past achievements are no touchstone of the qualities he has never exploited.  On the whole, Mr. O’Neill’s excursion into nostalgic comedy has resulted in one of his best works.  His sources are closer to life than the tortured characters of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”  His mood is mature and forgiving.  Now it is possible to sit down informally with Mr. O’Neill and to like the people of whom he speaks and the gentle, kindly tolerance of the memories. 

In a large small-town of Connecticut in 1906 lives an ordinary American family.  They are typical in their humors and vexations.  They are average fold faced by average problems, and they have the strength to solve them.  What concerns them most in “Ah, Wilderness!” is the youthful fervor of Richard, who is a senior in high school and a rebel.  He reads Swinburne, Shaw, Wild and Omar Khayyam, and his mother worries.  He is an incipient anarchist; he hates capital and his father looks disturbed.  He is also passionately in love with a neighbor’s girl, and means to marry her.  The scraps break with Richard in good, melodramatic style.  Being young and arrogant, Richard runs amok to spite her, and gets tight in the presence of a painted lady.  His father and mother are sure that the world has come to an end.  But the damsel manages to prove her devotion at a moonlit rendezvous on the beach and Richard is himself again.  After everything has been settled naturally, the father and mother begin to remember that once they were young. 

That, in brief, is the fact of the story.  But it hardly communicates the warmth of pity that floods through the play.  For undistinguished as the legend may be, Mr. O’Neill has given it distinction by the fervor of his emotion.  He not only likes these burgher folk, but he understands them; and particularly in the last act in the scene between the son and the father he has caught all the love and anguish that such relationships conceal.  The roistering scene in the back room of a small hotel bar is commonplace enough.  Some of the domestic scenes are hackneyed, and the progress of “Ah, Wilderness!” lacks the drive of Mr. O’Neill’s tragic war hoses.  But his recognition of the tortures of adolescence, and the petty despairs of small-town life, bring him closer to most of us than any of his other plays have done.

As a writer of comedy he is n gag buffoon.  The lines that draw laughter from the audience cannot be detached from the play for isolated quotation.  But his attitude toward his characters is lightened with a sense of humor.  Part of the humor rebounds from the costumes of 1906 – the flat straw hats, striped flannel trousers, long coats, high collars that the young blades wear in their frivolities, and the monstrous automobile garb needed for Fourth of July motoring.  Part of the humor comes from the intellectual timidities that we persuade ourselves were typical of that day.  Nat Miller falteringly talking sex to his son is one of the funnies episodes n this fable.  There is an undercurrent of humor in all the dilemmas of the Miller children and in all the familiar jars of family life in the sitting-room and over the dinner-table.  But if Mr. O’Neill’s approach to Richard’s torment of eager, youthful problems is not humorous it is fraught with humanity, and it is alternately poignant and disarming.

The Guild has risen to the occasion nobly.  Mr. Moeller’s direction is supple, alert and sagacious; and Robert Edmond Jones’s settings recognize the humor in the stuffy refinement of 1906.  As Nat Miller, the father, Mr. Cohan gives a splendid performance.  Although that adjective is exact, it seems hardly enthusiastic enough for the ripeness and kindliness and wisdom of his playing.  He is quizzical in the style to which we are all accustomed from him, but the jaunty mannerisms and the mugging have disappeared.  For the fact is that “Ah, Wilderness!” has dipped deeper into Mr. Cohan’s gifts and personal character than any of the antics he has written for himself.  Ironic as it may sound, it has taken Eugene O’Neill to show us how fine an actor George M. Cohan is.

As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos.  Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage.  Marjorie Marquis is excellent as a troubled, normal mother.  Gene Lockhart is capital as her amiable and bibulous brother.  As the spinster who refused his sixteen years ago, Eda Heinemann is also uncommonly good.  There are good performances of other parts by William Post Jr., Adelaide Bean, Walter Vonnegut Jr., Ruth Gilbert, Richard Sterling, Johan Wynne and Ruth Holden.  And in spite of its dreadful title, “Ah, Wilderness!” is a true and congenial comedy.  If Mr. O’Neill can write with as much clarity as this, it is hard to understand why he has held up the grim mask so long.

 

© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com